Exclusive: Inside Birthright Israel’s new merger
Confronting challenges including the pandemic and younger generations’ growing alienation from Israel, Birthright Israel is merging with a smaller and lesser-known organization that provides internships, study and immersive living experiences in the Jewish State.
Birthright, which has provided free 10-day trips to Israel for some 750,000 young adults since its founding in 1999, has in recent years faced signs of flagging interest in Israel from younger generations, protests from anti-occupation activists and, most recently and severely, pandemic cancellations.
The group it is merging with, Onward Israel, has engaged more than 12,000 people aged 19 to 27 in six- to 10-week Israel-based programs. Originally part of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Onward will now become a Birthright program, and offer expanded internship and work opportunities.
Gidi Mark will continue to serve as International CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel, and Ilan Wagner, formerly Onward’s CEO, will become vice president of Onward programs at Birthright.
Mark, who shared news of the merger with the Forward ahead of its broader announcement, said the goal of the merger is “to develop more diverse offerings that interest even more participants.” He explained that this will allow Birthright to “both begin a Jewish young adult’s journey with a 10-day program in Israel and then help continue that journey with various exciting, longer and immersive opportunities.”
Recent studies have shown that Jewish millennials and members of Generation Z feel less connected to and supportive of Israel than previous generations. Some progressive American Jewish groups, including J Street, IfNot Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, have criticized Birthright for omitting Palestinian voices.
Mark did not specifically respond to how Birthright intends to address these concerns. Instead, he said that young American Jews remain “adamant about their desire to connect with Israel and their Jewish identity.”
He also noted that Birthright has offered specialized trips — like those for people with disabilities or members of the LGBTQ community — to meet participants’ changing needs and interests.
“As a result of the merger, Birthright Israel will continue investing time and effort in developing programming that appeals to different audiences of this generation,” Mark wrote in an email.
About three-quarters of those who go on Birthright trips are from the United States. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Birthright typically brought about 40,000 participants to Israel each year.
Haaretz reported in December 2018 some key trip providers had said that participation that winter had dropped between 20% and 50% compared to the previous year, despite the fact that Birthright had raised the age of eligibility from 26 to 32 to increase the size of the applicant pool.
Mark, however, denied that participation rates had dropped before the pandemic. He said Birthright had set a record in 2017 and broke it again in 2018 with more than 48,000 participants. Now, he said, “with the skies being closed due to the pandemic,” more than 100,000 people have applied to participate in future programs.
“We’re incredibly optimistic about Birthright’s future,” he wrote.
Birthright plans to resume trips once it is safe to do so, Mark said, for those who have been vaccinated or boosted within the previous six months.
“Our primary goal has always been to give every Jewish young adult around the world a trip to Israel in order to help strengthen identity and connection with Israel,” he said. “The pandemic has been the greatest challenge we have faced on the road to achieving that goal, but by merging with Onward we take the next great step forward.”